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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 February 2007, 17:48 GMT
'Respite' for Zimbabwe's farmers
White farmer in Zimbabwe
The land reform programme has been accompanied by violence
A Zimbabwean minister has said the last white farmers can stay on their land long enough to harvest their crops even though a deadline has passed.

But Lands Minister Didymus Mutasa told the UN's Irin news agency that the farmers would still have to leave.

Many of Zimbabwe's remaining 400 white farmers were supposed to have left their farms at the weekend.

The seizure of some 4,000 white-owned farms has seen a collapse in Zimbabwe's agricultural production.

"We have, as a government, agreed to let them [white commercial farmers] stay put and wind up their businesses, at least until harvest time. It is then that they will be moving out and making way for our own people [black farmers], who urgently need land," Mr Mutasa said.

This is likely to mean the farmers can stay until August.

Laws changed

The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) has advised members to resist forcible eviction - saying arrest and prosecution is their only way of getting a hearing in court.

Zimbabwe's laws have been changed to prevent farmers going to court to challenge the seizure of their land.

Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of southern Africa, has had to rely on food imports since the seizure of white-owned farms was speeded up seven years ago.

President Robert Mugabe launched the programme with the aim of redressing economic imbalances left over from British colonial rule.

But critics say the often violent campaign has devastated Zimbabwe's agriculture-based economy, leading to massive food shortages.

The US-based Famine Early Warning System last month warned that Zimbabwe was facing a shortfall in maize - the staple food - of some 700,000 tonnes this year.

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